By NICOLE GRANT
(Oct. 20, 2014) — Picture a construction worker and you likely imagine a strong, square-jawed man in a hard hat and Carhartts. Well, you wouldn’t be wrong. Less than 3% of all construction workers nationwide are women.
This is a tragedy because construction offers some of the best jobs there are in terms of wages, earn-as-you-learn training opportunities, and adventure. There is no good reason why women should be excluded from this industry and the fact that they are contributes to Washington state’s gender pay gap, where women make a measly $0.80 on the male dollar.
So it was a stunning victory for all tradeswomen last week when the Washington State Apprenticeship and Training Council voted to shut down IEC Apprenticeship of Washington after finding them guilty of years of gender discrimination. The three-day hearing exposed the cynical way in which IEC signed women up, thus pleasing the agencies that monitor programs for discrimination, while offering them no real career opportunities.
In her moving testimony, apprentice electrician Johnee Guizzotti described how she was given a list of numbers by IEC to call to ask for a job. On one occasion a foreman called her back, seemingly eager to hire, but when he heard her voice and realized she was a woman, he changed his mind. When Johnee reported this to IEC they laughed at her.
An investigation into IEC by the Washington State Department of Labor and industries showed that only 33% of their electrical contractors hired women. With so few opportunities to work, many female apprentices wandered away and either found legitimate apprenticeships that would put them to work or left the industry all together.
To drive women out of the trades when they are most needed is unacceptable and that is the message that State Apprenticeship Council sent when they moved to withdraw IEC’s registration, effectively shutting them down. The vote was 4-to-3 with Washington State Labor Council President Jeff Johnson, Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council Executive Secretary Lee Newgent, UA Local 44 Business Manager Pat Perez, and Sound Transit Diversity Programs Director Leslie Jones all voting to bring justice to the dozens of women who had the misfortune of walking through IEC’s doors.
This victory could not come at a better time.
Washington’s construction industry is entering a boom that should provide years of strong growth. With plenty of work for everyone, any apprentices displaced by IEC closing will be able to transfer into one of the many great electrical apprenticeships across the state.
As for the many women apprentices needed to bring balance to all construction crafts, there has never been a better time for a woman to join an apprenticeship. Sadly it seems as if it is up to the men and women enjoying careers in construction today to encourage the women in their networks to apply for these opportunities.
A 2013 study on women in apprenticeship reported that virtually no high school counselors are recommending apprenticeship as a career path for female students. Clearly cultures both inside and outside of the industry need to modernize and break down the barriers that prevent women from enjoying construction careers.
There is nowhere a woman belongs more than working on a high-rise tower in one of Washington’s glorious cities, watching the dawn from 30 stories up and preparing to spend the day literally building America as she puts bread on her family’s table. The courage of the State Apprenticeship Council will likely help a few more brave women towards that moment.
Nicole Grant is Executive Director of the Certified Electrical Workers of Washington and a Vice President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Grant is pictured here (at far left holding her son) with a group of Seattle-area tradeswomen at one of their regular reunions to celebrate graduating from their apprenticeship programs.